Pope John Paul II called for a New Evangelization; Denver answered

Shortly after Pope John Paul II visited Denver during World Youth Day in 1993, Curtis Martin had the opportunity to meet with the pope and share his vision for an organization called FOCUS.

The idea was that FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) would evangelize students on college campuses, a place where many people lose their faith. When the pope heard the idea, his message for Martin was simple.

“Be soldiers,” he said.

“We’ve really taken that as a heartfelt call to be soldiers for Christ, to be willing to lay down our lives for the sake of the Gospel,” said John Zimmer, Vice President of Apostolic Development at FOCUS.

Over the past 25 years, FOCUS has impacted tens of thousands of young people across the country and the world.

It’s one of several organizations that hit the ground running after the pope’s visit, sparked by his call for a New Evangelization, and whose impact has shaped the Catholic Church in Denver and throughout the world.

Seminaries bring ‘a richness’ to the archdiocese

After WYD 1993, the Archdiocese of Denver went on to shape future priests first-hand by creating two local seminaries.

Redemptoris Mater was established in 1996 and St. John Vianney in 1999. Both seminaries are located on the campus of the John Paul II Center for the New Evangelization.

“After the experience of the World Youth Day in Denver in August 1993, Archbishop [J. Francis] Stafford saw the goodness of establishing a diocesan in Denver and studied the possibility of opening a diocesan and missionary Redemptoris Mater seminary here,” said Father Tobias Rodriguez-Lasa.

We’ve really taken that as a heartfelt call to be soldiers for Christ, to be willing to lay down our lives for the sake of the Gospel.”

Father Rodriguez-Lasa is the current rector at Redemptoris Mater, an international seminary that brings in men from around the world.

“Internationality adds richness to the formation experience,” said Father Rodriguez-Lasa, “as these future priests learn to live, work, study, play sports and interact in a variety of ways with other fellow seminarians coming from other cultures and world viewpoints.”

Father Rodriguez-Lasa believes bringing in seminarians from other countries “is a richness for everyone in the archdiocese, as it makes present the Catholicity and universality that constitute one of the distinctive characteristics of the Church.”

He finds that having two seminaries in Denver helps the seminarians — especially those from other countries studying for Denver — to stay in close contact with the archbishop and other Church leaders, as well as gain a better understanding of the parishes and ministries in the archdiocese.

Working within those parishes and ministries is a key part of formation at both seminaries, as the seminarians help the young and the elderly and offer services for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. This, said Father Rodriguez-Lasa, is how the seminaries play a role in the New Evangelization in Denver.

“The miracle is that the more we participate in the New Evangelization,” he said, “the more we receive from it.”

Augustine Institute ‘on the cutting edge’ of JPII’s vision

The Augustine Institute has formed disciples who have gone on to evangelize through a variety of apostolates.

By offering an M.A. in Theology, an M.A. in Leadership, study programs, videos and more, the Augustine Institute has created lay leaders in the New Evangelization.

“We opened in August 2006, inspired by Saint Pope John Paul II’s call for a new evangelization . . .” said Tim Gray, president of the Augustine Institute, in a 2016 interview with Denver Catholic.

“We wanted to help people effectively engage, evangelize and win the post-modern culture that believes anyone can have their own private story, but there should be no public story,” said Gray.

Those who participate in the Augustine Institute go on to work in a variety of apostolates, said Gray.

“We are also amazed by the new ways graduates go into the field,” he said.

Organizations created by graduates of the Augustine Institute include Camp Wojtyla and Christ in the City. Others have gone on to work as leaders in the Archdiocese of Denver office and our Catholic schools.

The miracle is that the more we participate in the New Evangelization, the more we receive from it.”

And by launching formed.org, an online video streaming service that offers Catholic content to people around the world, those who aren’t seeking a degree but simply want to go deeper in their faith have the opportunity to do so.

“This is on the cutting edge of the New Evangelization,” said Gray.

FOCUS fights on the ‘battleground for souls’

Since Pope John Paul II’s visit, FOCUS has evangelized tens of thousands of college students. The organization expects that by 2022, around 75,000 students who were involved with FOCUS have transitioned into many of the 17,000 plus parishes in the United States.

“I think JPII not only challenged the Church for lay Catholics to evangelize, but in his World Youth Day efforts, he really challenged the young people to say that this is your role, your responsibility, so take an active part,” said Zimmer.

Zimmer admits the pope not only had a deep impact on the culture in Denver, but also on his own life.

“Even for me in this lost, dazed and confused world I was in at the time, it was still a very moving experience to see the pope land in the helicopter and watch him come in,” said Zimmer.

“It planted a seed [in me] that took a decade to come to fruition.”

Zimmer joined FOCUS in 1999 shortly after it was founded, and he and his wife first served as missionaries. Since then, Zimmer has held a variety of roles in the corporate office in Denver.

At FOCUS, college campuses are seen as a critical time when students need the Gospel to build upon a strong foundation for a sturdy faith life.

“The college campus is really a battleground for souls,” said Zimmer. “I think the Church needs to do as good a job as possible at trying to reach souls on college campuses when they’re in a time of questioning and they’re away from their parents for the first time.

“It’s a really pivotal moment in their life, and the Church needs to be there for them.”

One of the biggest ways FOCUS spreads the New Evangelization, said Zimmer, is by showing that the Gospel still matters today.

“I think one of the great opportunities we’ve had is to be a witness that the Gospel is still relevant,” said Zimmer, “and it’s relevant to young people.”

25 years down the road, FOCUS has high hopes for its evangelization efforts.

It’s a really pivotal moment in their life, and the Church needs to be there for them.”

“By then, hopefully millions of people who were involved in FOCUS will be planted in parishes throughout the country,” said Zimmer, “and there will be renewal happening all over — not just through FOCUS, but through all the other great apostolates.”

Seminaries
  • In the 2018-2019 academic year
    • 73 men studying for the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Denver
    • 52 men from outside the Archdiocese of Denver studying for the priesthood at St. John Vianney
    • 33 men studying for the priesthood at Redemptoris Mater
    • 125 men in formation studying in Denver at both St. John Vianney and Redemptoris Mater
FOCUS
  • In the 2018-2019 academic year
    • Nearly 700 missionaries are serving full-time on 153 college campuses
    • Missionaries will serve college campuses across 42 U.S. states and five international locations
    • A campus in England, Germany and Ireland, and two campuses in Austria, will be served by FOCUS missionaries
  • By 2022
    • FOCUS expects to have 75,000 students transitioned into many of the over 17,000 Catholic parishes in the United States
  • Since its founding
    • Tens of thousands of students have been involved with FOCUS
    • Out of those involved in FOCUS, 732 have decided to pursue religious vocations

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”